By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.), CFT, GCDF, CCSP

Old. Let’s be frank about it. You’d have to be pretty old to remember a time when the SAT or ACT wasn’t a fact of life for most high school students who aspire to a college education. It still is. However, the winds of change are beginning to ruffle the test booklets and answer sheets as more and more colleges adopt test-optional and test-flexible admissions policies.

The “Who” and “How Many” of Test-Optional

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest) lists more than a thousand accredited colleges with test-optional policies. The better-known ones include Wake Forest, Bowdoin, the University of Chicago, Worcester Polytechnic, James Madison, Wofford, Juilliard, the College of Idaho, LaSalle, and Bennington, to name a very few.

The last few months have been a busy time for colleges going test-optional, according to Inside Higher Ed:

Bucknell University announced in February that it was ending the requirement that all applicants submit SAT or ACT scores…Many colleges that have gone test optional do not recruit nationally or have competitive admissions, but Bucknell does. In the weeks since, more colleges have gone test optional, and there are signs that the policy shift is on the upswing.. In the winter of 2017-18, only one college announced it was going test optional. In the winter of 2018-19, Bucknell was one of eight colleges making such a shift…In calendar year 2019, the pace is now one such announcement every 10 days, more than twice the pace at comparable points in past years…

By the way, we often use vintage photos from Bucknell, and we are delighted to be reporting on something that happened there after 1946.

test-optional admissions

Test-optional and test-flexible institutions have historically tended to be small liberal arts colleges and/or schools with relatively undemanding admissions requirements, but the current trend is toward larger institutions and more selective ones joining the parade.

The “Why” of Test-Optional

While the timing of recent policy changes might lead one to conclude that the Varsity Blues admissions scandal (see Scams, Scandals, School Counselors, and Us and Under the Table and Over the Top: The Other College Admissions Scandals) provided the impetus for these decisions, the new converts all claim that their revised policies were under consideration well before the scandal broke, and that such adjustments normally require a year or two of study and internal consultation.

A spokesperson from the College Board, which owns and administers the SAT, told Inside Higher Ed that standardized tests are in fact important in thwarting corruption in admissions:

The events of the past few weeks highlight the critical importance of checks and balances in the admissions process. Standardized assessments make this kind of fraud much harder to pull off and much easier to identify. Imagine how much easier it would be to game the system without that kind of independent check on the process.”

Be that as it may, concerns about diversity appear to be the primary reason for the great re-thinking. Three-quarters of admissions leaders surveyed by Inside Higher Ed expressed concern about “persistent gaps” in SAT and ACT scores associated with race and ethnicity. “Generally, colleges that have dropped testing requirements in admissions have reported gains in minority applications and enrollments—without a decrease in graduation rates.” So says Inside Higher Ed, but a study by College Transitions concluded that “test-optional policies may not actually increase the enrollment of underrepresented students and, in some cases, may even have the exact opposite effect.” [emphasis added]

However, the University of San Francisco, one of the new adopters of test-optional admissions, says that grades in college-preparatory classes, not test scores, are the best predictor of college success, especially among minority and first-generation students.

Oh, and about that diversity business: Test scores for Asian-Americans are increasing much faster than those of other groups, but admissions decisions do not always reflect this phenomenon, a fact that has provoked lawsuits from Asian-Americans complaining of discrimination in admissions.

The “What” of Test-Optional and Test-Flexible

A test-optional admissions policy is just what the name indicates. The SAT or ACT is not required, and the applicant decides whether submission of those scores would be helpful as an indicator of academic performance and potential. In a test-optional scenario, the crucial factors are high school academic record; essay and/or other body of work, such as a portfolio or project; teacher recommendations; interview and/or audition; extracurricular activities; and community service.

Test-flexible, on the other hand, means that the college will entertain options other than the SAT or ACT, though this generosity is often extended only to applicants with a certain minimum GPA. Alternatives include SAT or ACT subject test scores, International Baccalaureate scores, and AP scores. The University of Rochester provides a useful example:

A wide variety of test results can fulfill Rochester’s testing requirement. For Rochester, sending more testing information can only improve your chances for admission to all available degree programs, professional programs, and scholarships. Testing that will fulfill our application requirement includes any of the following exams: SAT Reasoning; no essay required…ACT; no essay required…Two or more results from: SAT Subject exams…Advanced Placement (AP)…International Baccalaureate (IB)…AS- and A- Level Exams (in UK and Commonwealth countries) (3–4 exams preferred)…Results from many other national secondary exams…

Those likely to benefit from test-optional and test-flexible admissions policies include students who simply do not test well, because of test anxiety or other factors (see Getting to Grips With Test Anxiety), those with strong transcripts and weak test scores, and those who excel in some highly specialized area. Note that Juilliard appears as one of our examples of institutions with a test-optional admissions policy; this is not at all unusual in schools devoted to the arts and design.

Is the test-optional or test-flexible route the right route for you? This is something The Coaching Educator can help you decide. We have a decade’s worth of experience helping students with college selection and the financial aid quest, and we can keep you on task and on schedule for the entirety of a process that seems to become ever more complex.

To learn more about our philosophy and capabilities, be sure to watch our free webinars, listen to our podcasts, sign up for our four-week College App Boot Camp, consider our Ultimate Programs and our special services for athletes and performing-arts students, and book a consultation to hear what we can do for you and how we do it. Keep reading this blog, and look for us on social media (see links below) as we keep our clients and admirers advised of new developments in our effort to help students get into and succeed at the right school.

Paul Culp is certified as a global career development facilitator and writes about college admissions, college costs, financial aid, and college life in general for The Coaching Educator team. A former journalist and corporate ghostwriter who now operates Shenandoah Proofreading, Editing & Composition Services (SPECS), he has also been a humanities teacher at all levels from university down to sixth grade. Paul has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University, and also is certified as a fitness trainer.

Main Photo: Habila Mazawaje

Recommended Reading and Podcasting About College Admissions and Testing

Carroll, Rebecca M., and Paul Culp. “Scams and Scandals in College Admissions,” The Coaching Educator, audio podcast, http://tce.local/podcasts/, accessed 23 April 2019.

Culp, Paul. “Getting to Grips With Test Anxiety,” The Coaching Educator, 28 November 2018, http://tce.local/2018/11/28/getting-to-grips-with-test-anxiety/

Culp, Paul. “If You Didn’t ACT But Just SAT There: The Difference Between the Two Tests,” The Coaching Educator, 27 September 2018, http://tce.local/2018/09/27/if-you-didnt-act-but-just-sat-there-the-difference-between-the-two-tests/

Culp, Paul. “Meet the Deciders: College Admissions Officers and What They Do,” The Coaching Educator, 27 October 2018, http://tce.local/2018/10/27/meet-the-deciders-college-admissions-officers-and-what-they-do/

Culp, Paul. “Remedial Nation: The Ghastly State of College Preparedness,” The Coaching Educator, 19 January 2019, http://tce.local/2019/01/19/remedial-nation-the-ghastly-state-of-college-preparedness/

Culp, Paul. “Scams, Scandals, School Counselors, and Us,” The Coaching Educator, 16 March 2019, http://tce.local/2019/03/16/scams-scandals-school-counselors-and-us/

Culp, Paul. “Technology, Intangibles, and the Brave New World of College Admissions,” The Coaching Educator, 29 May 2018, http://tce.local/2018/05/29/technology-intangibles-and-the-brave-new-world-of-college-admissions/

Culp, Paul. “Ten Common Mistakes You Must Avoid in Applying for College,” The Coaching Educator, 31 August 2018, http://tce.local/2018/08/31/ten-common-mistakes-you-must-avoid-in-applying-for-college/

Culp, Paul, “Under the Table and Over the Top: The Other College Admissions Scandals,” The Coaching Educator, 25 March 2019, http://tce.local/2019/03/25/under-the-table-and-over-the-top-the-other-college-admissions-scandals/

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